5 ways to win the human rights debate

A battle is coming, and the stakes are very high

Adam Wagner
Wednesday 13 May 2015 15:11
Michael Gove
Michael Gove

So this is it. The Conservatives' slim majority means that they can finally do what they have promised for a decade: repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

We don’t know yet what this Bill of Rights will look like. The vague language in the manifesto doesn’t give much of a clue. Chris Grayling produced a policy document in October which provided more detail, and was described by the Tories’ former Attorney General Dominic Grieve as a “recipe for chaos”. But Grayling has been reshuffled, and nobody knows yet what his replacement, Michael Gove, will do.

We can be sure of one thing. A battle is coming, and the stakes are very high. It is important for those who care about human rights to get the strategy right. Here are five things I think we need to do to ensure that our human rights are not eroded.

1. Put the positive case

So far, human rights advocates have not done a very good job at explaining to people why human rights should matter to them. So not criminals and terrorists, as you read about in the Daily Mail, but people in care homes, the families of soldiers, people seeking equality in the workplace. This is what we are doing on my new project, www.rightsinfo.org. Take a look.

And focussing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. We need to engage with reasonable criticisms, such as concern over prisoner votes, deportation of criminals and Abu Qatada. There is a case to be made on all of these points, and it is fine to say that courts sometimes get it wrong.

2. Avoid knee-jerkism

It is pointless and counterproductive to paint the Tory plans as evil or an attempt to remove all human rights. That is not what they want and the argument can be easily rebutted. For example, this Change.org petition (over 150,000 signatures) is a good example of what is not going to work. The Tories are not planning on scrapping all human rights and the referendum which the petition asks for could leave us in a far worse position than even the most radical Tory plan.

And Michael Gove is not the enemy, he needs to be judged on his actions. Some lawyers and NGOs have developed a case of knee-jerkitis in the Chris Grayling era. Some is justified. Grayling had a particular talent for winding up lawyers and judges, which backfired when his policies were repeatedly struck down in court. But a new minister is in town and the game has changed. He may be just as antagonistic, but time is short and he may be persuadable. We don’t know. Better to put the feelers out than waste the opportunity.

3. Have a Plan B

Many people, including judges and politicians, rightly think that the Human Rights Act (HRA) is a sensible and moderate law. But the Conservatives just won a Parliamentary majority with a clear manifesto commitment to replace it with a British Bill of Rights. It should be assumed that this is going to happen. And, let me repeat this, we do not know what the proposed Bill of Rights will look like.

We need to listen, argue rationally, and make constructive suggestions about the content of the Bill of Rights. Of course, this depends if the government intends to listen, and how radical their proposed bill is. But HRA-repeal is likely to be simultaneous with its replacement, we need, somehow, to fight to keep the HRA whilst also feeding into the BoR.

The overall twin aims should be to protect the existing rights and keep the UK in the European Convention.

4. Reach out to the middle ground

Equally Ours public attitudes research showed that just under 80 per cent of people are negative, neutral or disinterested in human rights. There’s a lot of work to do, and the neutral/disinterested group (around half) can be persuaded. But they need to be reached first. Whatever has been done in the past hasn’t worked, so it is time for new solutions.

Equally Ours recommend communicating human rights differently, and that makes a lot of sense. More fundamentally, those who support human rights need somehow to reach beyond their existing networks/echo chambers, such as Twitter, and speak to the middle ground. That, again, is what RightsInfo is about.

5. Don’t let the right wing media set the agenda.

Yes, they print a lot of rubbish about human rights. Much of it is myths or fabrications. They ignore thousands of stories about ordinary people using human rights laws. And it matters, because a lot of people read the Mail, as well as the Sun, Telegraph and Express. But as important as myth-busting is, it won’t win the overall argument. My experience is that it rallies the base but people who do not have a strong view about human rights are more likely to remember the myth than the busting. Advocates for human rights need to get on the front-foot and figure out a way of telling the other stories about human rights.

Time is short, and for the past 15 years we have failed to create a human rights culture in the UK. The battle can still be won, but it will need energy, positivity, and a little humility too.

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